Paul Gauguin, “The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana Has Many Parents (Merahi metua no Tehamana) (1893), oil on canvas, 76.3 × 54.3 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Deering McCormick, © The Art Institute of Chicago

LONDON — It is difficult not to walk out of the National Gallery’s Gauguin Portraits without harboring feelings of distaste for and even revulsion towards this puffed-up elf of a Frenchman.

Gauguin, on the evidence of this show, was a monstrous sexual predator, a near-perfect embodiment of the malignly lubricious male gaze, a man from France who took himself off to the French colonies, and not only sexually exploited many of the women he saw there, but also did his best to exoticize them in his paintings, to lay them out sideways, scantily clothed, in dreamy readiness for everyone-knows-what, and surround them with inscrutable ancestral gewgaws and snatches of mumbo-jumbo writing, all in the service of creating a seductively alluring species of art for mock-serious-minded, top-hatted collectors in Paris. Or so he hoped.

Although he had first gone to Tahiti in 1891 in pursuit of some paradisally unspoiled Otherwhere, it was not to be. The place was already partly ruined. What is more, many others had gone before him — including those tedious Christian missionaries, who forced many local women to dress much more modestly.

Paul Gauguin, “Young Breton Woman” (1889), oil on canvas, 46 × 38 cm, private collection, photo: Ian Lefebvre, © photo courtesy of the owner

Gauguin preferred them in more traditional dress, or in little or no dress at all. What is more, he had no particular desire to isolate himself from Paris, around which the world turned and turned (as it does — to a degree — even now) in giddy homage to its cultural superiority. He was in constant touch with those who dealt in his art. He knew about money. He had been a money man himself. To the very end of his life, he was in pursuit of a vision that would prove salable, and if it meant tricking out a Breton peasant or a fragile Tahitian maid in traditional dress, so be it.

On the other hand, is it really fair to judge in such terms a man who died one hundred and sixteen years ago? Do his transgressions have anything whatsoever to do with how we value him as a painter now? If the best of Gauguin’s work seems to be a triumph of the new painting — the rejection of academic restraints of the kind that had almost hobbled Delacroix, and a use of color more brilliantly and ferociously emboldened than perhaps ever before — does this automatically seal him off from crude criticism of this kind?

In short, has the word Genius (spoken in hushed tones) flung a cordon sanitaire around him? Are we not, in fact, being tediously and modishly moralistic, and in fact doing precisely what we might have condemned 19th-century critics for doing?

Paul Gauguin, “Self Portrait with Yellow Christ” (1890-1891), oil on canvas, 38.1 x 45.7 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, acquired by the Musées nationaux with the participation of Philippe Meyer and a Japanese patron, coordinated by the newspaper Nikkei, 1994. © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda

Yes and no. The fact is that we are alert and acutely sensitive to the sexual exploitation of women as never before, and, given that we are alive in the present, this cannot but feed into our judgment of Gauguin’s paintings now.

The fact is that we feel a little queasy in the presence of his inadequacies as a human being from first to last. They shout back at us. As if to make the point, the first gallery of the current show includes a display of profoundly unflattering self-portraits. We see his brutish arrogance from the start. He had no wish to flatter anyone – and especially not himself.

Is this self-obsession or self-absorption? Perhaps a little of both. The gaze looks furtive, scheming, almost as if he is eavesdropping upon himself, and takes little pleasure in what he is discovering.

In a “Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ” (1890-91), it is Gauguin himself who dominates the scene, a commandingly physical presence beside a crucified Christ who resembles a wan, helplessly weak if not jaundiced adjunct to the main event, a symbol to be used or exploited as the need arises.

Paul Gauguin, “Self portrait near Golgotha” (1896), oil on canvas, 75.5 × 63 cm, © Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, São Paulo, Brazil

What then are the principal strengths and weaknesses of this show? For a start, and given that the National Gallery will extract £22 from each of its visitors (if they are paying full price), actual masterpieces feel a little thin on the ground.

There are too many make-weights here, paintings which are not quite good enough, paintings that we probably want to see because they are undeniably by Paul Gauguin, but not what we might have yearned to come to see and even expected to see, given the promise of such a show as this one, and the fanfare that has surrounded its opening. Why? Why? Then there is the matter of a small sleight of hand. What exactly is a portrait? The least that anyone might expect of an object described as a portrait by Gauguin is an image of a human being such as you or me.

Not necessarily so in this exhibition, where the word “portraits” has been stretched unnaturally to include vases of flowers. This happens in a gallery called Surrogate Portraits. Surrogate portraits, according to the curators of this show, can include a vase of, say, sunflowers, because sunflowers recall the presence in Gauguin’s life of another testy man called Vincent van Gogh, and we will be pleased to be reminded of that.

Paul Gauguin, “Still Life with ‘Hope’” (1901), oil on canvas, 66 × 77 cm, private collection – Milano, Italy, © photo courtesy of the owner

Gauguin and Van Gogh spent almost three tumultuous months living together in Arles in 1883, hoping to found an artists’ colony, a utopian project which might have succeeded had its wishful creators not been two impossibly difficult human beings called Van Gogh and Gauguin, who got on as well as two pieces of sandpaper rubbed together very hard, and at high speed.

Having said that, although Gauguin’s still lifes of flowers do not have eyes or a nose, they are sometimes very fine paintings indeed (look hard at the one drearily entitled “Bouquet of Flowers” (1901-2), for example; the blooms are so restless, so fleshy, so tousled, so unruly). Who exactly does that remind us of, I wonder?

Even more haunting is “Still Life with Hope” (1901), a painting of dying sunflowers — Gauguin had in fact been an early champion of Van Gogh’s great cycle of sunflower paintings. Years after the rancor, and more than a decade after the death of Van Gogh himself, his old friend and antagonist evidently harbored a residual affection.

Gauguin Portraits continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross, London) through January 26, 2020.

Michael Glover

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times,...

41 replies on “Gauguin’s Predatory Colonial Gaze”

  1. Condemning sexual exploitation isn’t contemporary standards. Any exploited woman in the 19th century was definitely condemning their exploitation. This article ignores the point of view of anyone who’s not a privileged person and the author is being extremely arrogant.

  2. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of years of human civilization, civilization fighting and clawing and building and learning until, at last, it has reached the apotheosis of its greatest achievement, Mr. Glover.

  3. Paul Gauguin may be regarded as an “escapist” in his desire for the freedom to express his art creativity. As a businessman in France and Copenhagen with his Danish wife, he tried to be successful as the family breadwinner. But his work as a merchant and a stockbroker was beset by the lack of response for his sales products and several stock market crashes in the 1880s. He worked to support his bourgeois-minded wife and his own art, and aspired to be in the company of other artists like Camille Pissaro and Van Gogh.
    In Tahiti he found the freedom he sought in a far more carefree tropical culture. French missionaries had arrived to “Christianize” — that is to pseudo-moralize this island culture by destroying the Tahitian religious shrines and forcing free-spirited island women into European dress and sexual codes.

    To categorize Gauguin as a Euro-trash “colonist” shows an ignorance on the part of Michael Glover of the creative personality of the artist in general, and the REDUCTIVE cultural arrogance of 21st century NEO-REPRESSION !

    Please read Gauguin’s own 1901 narrative “Noa Noa” !

    1. What century were you born in? It doesn’t take much study in anthropology to discover–duh–Tahiti and every other Polynesian society had rigid rules about sexual relationships. The women Gauguin exploited were kicked to the side byTahitians. Who would marry such trash? The half-white bastard children left behind in French colonies …Christ, you have a lot to learn.

      1. Yes, I do have to learn that there are still legions of Racists like you hiding in the bushes, brimming with invective adjectives: “half-white bastard …” , “trash”.
        Another thing is that your use of pronouns makes your meaning unclear. Who were the women kicked aside by Gauguin. Well, even Papeete was too Europeanized for him.
        What are your anthropological sources ?? Have you read Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” ? Even William Bligh’s captain’s journals in the 1780s recognize the freedom and dance festivities of Polynesian society as a “danger” to his men from the uptight world of England.

        1. For God’s sake, Mead’s work on Samoa and specificly re sexual mores was debunked by anthropologists decades ago. Do a simple Web seach. This has been in intro anthro courses for decades. Of course, as anyone can tell my from first sentence, the perceptions were those of the local societies. The girls and woman were ostracized.This happened in colonized societies the world over.

          1. Kurban, — just what is your beef ? Are you trying to be a modern-day “Christian” Missionary ? Even Captain William Bligh knew what he was up against in 1789, calling Tahitian girls ” ‘fleshpots’ that are temping my men to mutiny” — (aside from the self-stated facts in his own ship’s log of his cruelty since sailing from England !)

            You fail to cite your sources by name, so I’ll give you one hint:
            perhaps you are thinking of Derek Freeman, whose feeble arguments, compared to the pioneering work of Mead, is a footnote in academic history. In other words: REVISIONIST RUBBISH ! —

            [From Wikipedia;}
            “In 1983, five years after Mead had died, New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman published “Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth,” in which he challenged Mead’s major findings about sexuality in Samoan society. Freeman’s book was controversial in its turn: later in 1983 the American Anthropological Association declared it to be “poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading.”

            “In 1999, Freeman published another book, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, including previously unavailable material. In his obituary in The New York Times, John Shaw stated that his thesis, though upsetting many, had by the time of his death generally gained widespread acceptance. Recent work has nonetheless challenged his critique. A frequent criticism of Freeman is that he regularly misrepresented Mead’s research and views. In a 2009 evaluation of the debate, anthropologist Paul Shankman concluded that:

            “There is now a large body of criticism of Freeman’s work from a number of perspectives in which Mead, Samoa, and anthropology appear in a very different light than they do in Freeman’s work. Indeed, the immense significance that Freeman gave his critique looks like ‘much ado about nothing’ to many of his critics.”

            Well, Kurban, this is all I’m going to argue with your REVISIONISM. Period!

      2. You could put those 2 sentences, (from Who … colonies), in inverted commas to clarify that is/was the opinion in Tahitian society. Not yours.

  4. I love his work, especially portraits. He is long dead and his life can be an example for us now if we choose to make it so, but only as a historical reflection of his time and place…places, his creativity aside.

  5. I think it has been widely acknowledged, including by the man himself, that Gauguin was not a very nice person, so that continuing to flog this proposition as if it is some kind of shocking revelation has turned into a species of pure virtue signaling, with very little informational content. Is the art itself analyzed for evil content, distinct from the defects of the artist? Not here. The outstanding evil mentioned here is the class-war price of admission (£22). I guess they don’t want the proles to be looking at any naked Tahitians. So is that good or bad?

    1. Many of you are missing the whole point.
      The author is asking all those questions but you are denying it.
      Note his subtitle:
      “Is it fair to use contemporary standards to judge a man who died 116 years ago?”

      1. (rarely do authors write the sub heading; this is part of the click bate) Us Millennials LOOOVVVVEEE to cancel people, especially when they are old, dead, and white.

      2. Agreed. Also why do many assume that kindness, fairness, or being decent to another human or animal are ‘modern’ notions?

          1. Pardon my ignorance, I could not take on the student loan debt nor had the privilege to attend a master or phd program. So no, no bells are ringing.

          2. He was famous long ago.

            There is now as great a distance between us and the publication of Lolita, as between the publication of Lolita and the accession of Queen Liliuokalani, or the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes. Since almost no one reads any more, the young have been cheated of their history, unless some multimillionaire or large corporation chooses to make a piece of it into a movie or a television serial or some other kind of propaganda. No wonder you’re bored, bored! Travels? Thanks to I-95, New Jersey now extends from Maine to Florida — probably, from Labrador to Costa Rica.

            Sorry we old folks destroyed the world, but we wanted to make lots of money and drive big cars and other important big-man stuff.

          3. And yet you lecture…
            Take a break. Check out your betters. Nabokov, Montale, Merleau-Ponty, Schapiro, Gaddis, Barthes, Iggy. Irreverance is cool, when it’s grounded and not smug.
            You’ve got something. Use it.

  6. The author conveniently forgets to mention that Gauguin was also a deadbeat dad. At a time when there was no social safety net, and a woman raising her children alone was always circumspect, regardless of the circumstances that put her there. But not omitting this important fact about the artist’s life would have clouded the writer’s narrative, which was already shaky at best. At a time when we topple statues that represent repressive and ugly times in our societies’ pasts, forgiving the man because he needed to chase his muse is inexcusable. Many artists chased their muse, provided for their families otherwise, and still made great art. I smell a white privileged male who doesn’t ‘get it’, all over this piece of work. Praising the art itself is fine, as long as people know what the person behind it was really like. Humans are an imperfect species, capable of making both acts of beauty and hideous crimes at the same time.

    1. Inexcusable ? Oh? We now need to FORGIVE individuals for chasing their Muse ?

      Mtpalms , do you have any evidence to back up your charge of non-support ? Just what you “smell” ? — WHO wanted to have the five children in this family that would load Gauguin down with family responsibilities ? Mete seems to have come from a prosperous family. Paul not. They married in 1873, first child born in 1874, The fifth in 1883. HER family ended Mete & Paul’s marriage in 1885 when Paul’s “values” no longer matched theirs…. The kind of bourgeois “Family Values” that you assume should be standard for all are ultimately morbid entrapment to those gifted with artistic genius, unless “society” quickly rewards their creative expressions.

      Question: What’s on your walls ? Originals or reproductions ??

  7. Only a naive college student–from which so much of the neoliberal woke speak has derived, keeping, as Simon & Garfunkel sang, “the customer satisfied”–could in anyway believe that being a genius also necessities being “good” person. And only a rather limited and immature mind could view art and creativity through such a moralistic prism. I chose my friends and, sometimes, lovers, based on their character; I don’t look to dead artists I don’t know for moral guidance. I’ll leave that to the politician (hahaha) and priest (hahaha). But enjoyed looking (again) at the art accompanying the article here!

  8. We need to stop retro-criticizing. Applying our modern mores to someone who lived over 100 years ago makes no sense whatever. Mr. Glover, I have a question for you, did you go through the entire exhibition looking at every painting before going off in a self-righteous huff? Or, did your nauseous stomach cause to bolt back through the entrance.

      1. I doin’t need to google “social justice warrior” to learn about this point of view. I am generally supportive of such activities but I do not understand how criticizing a man who has been dead for 116 years would any kind of justice.

      1. Sure no problem, Joy. I suggest reading Eve Tuck’s essay “Decolonization is not a metaphor”. (Or as the social justice warriors say, “sheesh, look it up… it is not my emotional labor to ‘splain it to you”.) My overarching question is, at what point is “decolonization” just going to be washed away as hyperbole or a trend? Before the SJW trolls start clacking at their keyboards, I am all for actual decolonization. I appreciate the nuance Eve brings to the discussion and action items for decolonization and not just pointing out every white European as a “settler” for likes or views. Love will tear us apart…. xx

  9. The author’s “revulsion towards this puffed-up elf of a Frenchman” need not have gone past the first sentence. Puffed up elves of any variety expounding with word salad overloaded with sandpaper are, well, puffed up.

  10. Maybe the point isn’t to judge Gauguin but to use his work to exemplify the colonial mindset of the time period? I’m less interested in him as a person than in what his work says about the people, place, and time.

  11. EVERYONE should PLEASE read “NOA NOA” — Gauguin’s own memoir. He was not some “colonial bureaucrat” representing the French Colonial Government, but a progressively-poorer artist seeking refuge from the neuroses of European society and from his failure as a French businessman. His marriage had ended in 1885, five years before he went to Tahiti for the first time. The females he “exploited” were not children but on each visit to Tahiti and the Marquese Island over the years, were one young woman, each time, that he established as his WIFE. They lived in a BAMBOO HUT, 45 km from Papeete, NOT a Frenchman’s mansion ! He returned to Paris several times to care for his family when deaths had occurred. The VD he died from in 1903 came from France and not from Polynesia,
    and was apparently not transmitted to islanders. His artwork was modestly collected by the time of his death, and did not enrich him.

  12. Self righteous bullshit seems to be, more and more, what writing looks like at Hyperallergic. I’m reading it less and less.

  13. That’s one bangin’ mash-up of a review. I liked the last 2 graphs. The intro seemed Lester Bangs-ish, taking on a “woke” persona, perhaps a little too cheeky? There certainly should be conversation about colonial context, exploited peoples, and brand of oils used! But please, please, please, do not hide this art, ever!

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